1. Urban Settlement in British Columbia

Urbanization in British Columbia

The place we call British Columbia was settled approximately 10,000 years ago by people migrating from Eastern Asia across the Bering Strait. Permanent settlements by First Nations in BC are commonly dated to around 5,000 years ago. These places served as anchors for agriculture and as trade routes along the coast and the rivers reaching further east. This process of urbanization contributed to the formation of complex societies that have existed in BC ever since.

In the early 18th century, First Nations societies living in BC made contact with Spanish and British explorers. It is unknown precisely how many First Nations were living within the territory at the time of contact, but estimates range from 80,000 to 500,000, indicating large social groups living throughout the region.

With the coming of British settlers, so too came processes of deterritorialization and displacement. This happened most directly through the creation of the reserve system, the enactment of the British North American Act (1867) and the Indian Act (1876), processes of reterritorialization settlement, and British occupation that signaled the beginning of colonial dominance in the region.

The Colonial City

A colonial city is a settlement either mapped onto an existing settlement or created to establish economic and military dominance in a colony. The function of the colonial city was to centralize and regulate trade for export back to home countries in England and western Europe, and to expand colonial power over the land.

Victoria was established as a trading and military post on the southern tip of Vancouver Island in 1841. It became the first colonial city in British Columbia to secure British dominance over the Spanish and First Nations in the region. It was established on land settled by the Songhees First Nation and grew to be a lively urban settlement and a strategic military site.

On the mainland, New Westminster and Vancouver were settled by the British in order to establish both a capital of the colony of British Columbia (in the case of New Westminster, 1859) and a new economic centre along the Burrard Inlet (in the case of Vancouver, 1862). Forestry, trapping and fishing were the main economic drivers of these new colonial settlements; however, it was the discovery of gold in Haida Gwaii and the lower Fraser River that led to rapid urbanization in 1858.

Cultural Composition and Trade Activities

Colonial trade activities shaped the landscape of BC over the next 200 years. Throughout this time the cultural composition of Canadian cities was changing through various waves of immigration. Chinese workers came to BC to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, and then settled throughout the province in designated neighbourhoods. The establishment of Chinatowns in BC, as elsewhere in the world, reflected the view that as visible minorities, the Chinese were inferior and should therefore live apart. What is now the second-oldest Chinatown in North America was established in Victoria. Other Chinatowns arose in Vancouver, Richmond, New Westminster, Nanaimo and Penticton. There was also significant Chinese settlement in HazeltonBoston BarLillooetRock CreekGranite Creek and Fisherville (Wild Horse Creek). As you can see in Figure 1, BC has always been home to significant percentages of immigrants to Canada. Other immigrant groups to British Columbia throughout the past 200 years include Indian, East Asian, Italian, Japanese, Scandanavian and German peoples.  

Figure 1.3 Immigrants residing in Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area as a percentage of Canada’s and British Columbia’s immigrant population, by period of immigration, 2001

Railway and Urban Growth

In 1871, British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation over fears of US annexation, and with the promise that the railway would be extended west. With the construction of the railway came a second wave of immigration to the area. According to census data, the population of BC doubled between 1881, when the railway was finished, and 1891. Resource extraction activities, including mining, fishing and forestry, continued during this time, ensuring a steady economy for people moving to the province.

At the beginning of the 20th century, urbanization in BC was focused toward the east, with communities such as Revelstoke and Kamloops gaining population. The railway remained a key route for transporting people and goods across the province during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which saw outward migration from BC urban centres, throughout World War II and the rise in shipbuilding in the Burrard Inlet, and during the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and up through the 1970s.

Rapid growth throughout the province was precipitated by large multinational firms interested in expanding the forestry industry, with pulp and paper mills being built in places such as Prince George, Kitimat, Gold River, Castlegar and Kamloops. During this time the provincial government was also involved in several infrastructure expansion projects. The establishment in 1960 of BC Ferries led to the rapid expansion of the water transport within the province. Airport expansion and road upgrades also transformed the connections between cities. The rapid advances of global transportation technologies, combined with falling energy prices that led to globalization throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s led to the boom in oil and natural gas industries, bolstering many northern BC towns. Simultaneously, the global transport of goods became cheaper, production and manufacturing was moved to countries outside of North America and commodity prices declined. This shifting global production economy affected BC in the early 1980s. In 1982 the BC economy shrank by 2.9%. In response, urban redevelopment efforts were spurred on, such as the development of False Creek in Vancouver in preparation for the World’s Fair, Expo ’86.

Contemporary Urbanization in BC

Contemporary urbanization in BC is characterized by significant population growth in southwestern BC cities, depopulation of northern BC urban centres and housing affordability and security throughout the province. Rapidly changing technologies and resource use, as well as the conflict over whether and how to extract resources in the province mean that the exact form of urbanization in BC cities is impossible to predict. In the following section we explore two case studies that look at more contemporary urban processes in Vancouver and Victoria respectively.


  • Figure 1.3 Immigrants residing in Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area as a percentage of Canada’s and British Columbia’s immigrant population, by period of immigration, 2001 by the Government of Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/notices.asp#copyright).


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British Columbia in a Global Context Copyright © 2014 by Geography Open Textbook Collective is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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